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Tag Archives: game design

“This game is just unfair! I’m not even sure you can get past this part.”
“What? That bit was easy! There’s no challenge in this game at all.”

Challenge is a tricky term to discuss in video games. We probably all recognise exchanges like the one above, which demonstrate the relative subjectivity of the matter. Balance and difficulty present a complex riddle for game designers.

One of the important factors involved is the “punishment” for failure. Usually the player character will die and be sent back to the last checkpoint. The player then has to replay up to where they were originally.

It’s tempting to say no one likes doing that, but that would be ignoring the fondness for ultra-difficult NES era games and the slightly-more-than-cult following of Demon’s Souls.

But most have probably seen the human reaction when someone watching a game being played loses interest as soon as the player dies and is reset to an earlier position, like you rewound a few minutes of a film they were watching.

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Picture the barren wastelands of post-apocalyptia. The remains of mankind have pieced together a few settlements out of the rubble, but most of the irradiated landscape is lawless nothingness filled with scavengers fighting to survive.

There’s probably a fair few games that spring to mind, eh?

It looks like games aren’t leaving this kind of setting behind any time soon. But we’re yet to see a single game that’s really captured what I’d like to see out of this idea.

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The plot device wife

Video games evolved beyond the fairytale ‘rescue the princess’, perhaps an attempt to tell more intelligent stories. The problem is that this evolution consists of using ‘loved ones’ as the new ubiquitous carrot on the stick for the protagonist. Usually in the form of wives.

We’re told they’re married. We don’t tend to know anything about this womacguffin or her relationship with the hero. We’re just told ‘wife’ and are expected to infer that as an instant explanation for why the hero loves her so much and is willing to stab Cthulu in the face to “get her back”.

Alan Wake was guilty of this too, despite actually giving Alice some traits and even showing her together with Alan in normality. She still just became another princess to rescue. While on the other hand Red Dead Redemption arguably sidestepped this problem.

Now, mainstream video games admittedly aren’t perfect for portraying complex romantic relationships. Unless you’re really into dating sims. But would it hurt to write a spouse as something other than motivation?

Cliffhangers

Halo 2 is the obvious and classic example of this, but I believe there are much worse offenders. Usually from the “We haven’t released the first game nor have we seen how its been received critically or commercially – but we’re doing a trilogy!” crowd.

That means you, Assassin’s Creed and Gears of War. Both with stories that leave more unexplained and unsatisfied than a season of Lost.

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Everyone who played Red Dead Redemption has their favourite little moments, be it stepping out onto the plains in Mexico to the tune of Far Away by Jose Gonzalez, or that ending. I’ve talked about the game pretty often too.

There was one thing I haven’t seen anybody mention though. Something that provoked an emotional reaction in me. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if anyone else noticed or even cared. Maybe it was one of those new-fangled personal “interpretation” things.

As you likely know, the whole game is about the end of the Wild West. It’s the historical setting, it’s reflected in the story of John Marston and many characters comment on it.

But despite the talk of oncoming civilisation, the game really succeeds at making you feel like you’re in the old classic Wild West. The animals, the sort-of-lawlessness, the weapons and the accents. Most important to me though – was the setting.

From the Mexican architecture and vistas (as seen in Fistful of Dollars) to the dusty little towns like Armadillo (pictured above) that perfectly matched everything we ever saw in the movies. Tumbleweed and all.

Then you show up in Blackwater in the third act. You ride your horse into town for the first time in-game. There’s no cinematic fanfare, no special music, no in-game commentary.

You just cross from dirt to paved streets. The clippity-clop of horseshoes suddenly has a different sound. You’re surrounded by brick buildings in perfectly straight streets. There’s pavements, lampposts, uniformed police officers, telephone lines and a car.

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Yes, that's Nero with a gravity gun arm.

It’s surprising that no “stylish action” games (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, etc.) has utilised a mechanic akin to the gravity gun of Half-Life 2 fame.

There’s always debris and assorted objects around either in the ruined environments or left over from the combat. It could add to combo meters and help make the battles even more fluid and stylish. And the extra demands of physics engines aren’t unreasonable for games like that.

For the sake of example, let’s take Nero (Photoshopped above) from Devil May Cry 4.¬† Nero has a demonic arm known as the Devil Bringer. Bear with me on this.
Using the Devil Bringer usually involves the appearance of a larger spectral version of the arm. The spectral arm can stretch, offering long range capability. This allows Nero to grab enemies from afar and to use the arm like a grappling hook. So, Nero is perfect for picking up random objects to hurl at enemies.

Now how it would work needs to be considered. It could be exactly like the gravity gun and suddenly switch to first person mode. But that might be a little jarring, and Devil May Cry likes its fixed camera angles. So, instead, it could just be a crosshair used to select what you want to pick up, as well as the enemy you want to throw it at.

So as not to break up the timing, the game would go into very slow motion, Modern Warfare style, whenever you activate the gravity-gun-style mechanic. Naturally, getting hit by an enemy would cancel you out of this. This would all need to be balanced perfectly to give players just enough time to select their makeshift weapon and the enemy they want to hit with it.

One drawback is the likelihood of it slowing down the gameplay too much. In a series based around constant slashing and perfect reflexes, slowing down and giving the player time to breathe mid-combo might just be a little too out of sync with their design. Although it might work in real time with an automatic lock-on based on simple directional controls, similar to aiming Dante’s guns in Devil May Cry 3.

Whether it would fit with that particular series or not, it’s just surprising not to see that kind of idea attempted in a modern action game. I think it could be pretty fun.

(Click here for previous game mechanic idea!)

Warning: The following content features incredibly dull screenshots.

Explore exciting fantasy worlds! Meet interesting characters!

I hate dungeon crawling.

It turns games into a chore.¬† When trying to enjoy a story, a world or even a combat system I don’t want to overdose on the latter. They are almost always just filler, to get in the way of progression or things worth playing.

Long and boring dungeon crawls ruined Dragon Age: Origins for me and put me off playing Dragon Quest VIII altogether. If I wanted to go through a dull, repetitive environment mindlessly fighting meaningless hordes I’d play Diablo.

You find the ancient and decaying Vault, cut off from the outside by extreme radiation. Radroaches scurry within, the lighting is gloomy and the rooms are claustrophobic.

In Fallout 3 you travel to Vault 87 – the only known location of a mysterious item you desperately need. You find it populated by the huge and deadly Super Mutants. They are a result of the horrific viral experiments conducted on the Vault’s former inhabitants.

Sounds tense, mysterious and very atmospheric…Then you run up some stairs, see some Super Mutants, shoot them in the face and spend the next half an hour killing identical enemies through identical corridors and looting useless items in identical rooms. Not so tense or mysterious, never mind atmospheric. It’s pretty much the same thing as the caves and the sewers and the buildings and every other dungeon.

Bodies litter the floors, hordes of insane Selkath that can't be reasoned with lurk in the shadows and the facility is surrounded by sharks.

It’s not just Bethesda, even beloved Bioware are ridiculously guilty of this too. In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, you are sent to investigate the underwater Hrakert Station on the planet Manaan. You take a submarine down and meet the only surviving mercenary the Republic had sent after communication was lost. You discover that a large shark appeared on the Hrakert Rift, then afterwards the native Selkath workers went insane and killed everybody.

Sounds tense, mysterious and…Well, you can probably see where this is going. Identical corridors, identical enemies. Circular design with lots of little rooms means it all becomes needlessly complicated and drawn out with frequent map checking. Same as the many dungeons on Taris, Kashyyk or anywhere else in the game.

Here’s five guidelines I’d suggest to avoid ruining dungeons that had potential like those above:

1. Locational awareness

Seriously, stop with the identical corridors. Ask yourself if the player needs to head down another hallway. Design rooms with a purpose – what was the point of the room in-universe? Is it worth looking at? Cut the ones that shouldn’t exist, put them behind a broken door. Differentiate the areas to make them memorable.

Not technically a dungeon because it's Bioshock, but note how this is an actual restaurant complete with reception and party hats on tables.

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Instinctive control.

In the original Super Mario Bros. you can ‘get’ the controls very quickly. Instead of thinking “lean left thumb on the right part of the d-pad to move Mario right” and “press right thumb on the A button to make Mario Jump” – you just do these things. Your brain says move right, your brain says jump. The controller in your hands becomes a conduit for you to perfectly control Mario or, if you can forgive the hyperbole: to BE Mario.

Although our modern, complex, 12 button (not counting directions) controllers¬† mean that this kind of intuitiveness has become less common, it is still something that games occasionally reach. It factors into design as well…

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You versus them.

It would be an interesting challenge for game developers to try and make a game with this single criteria:

  • Every single person the player kills should have a name and a personality.

Allow me to over-explain the point while you think about that. In write ups about Crysis and Splinter Cell Conviction, I criticised the games for throwing too many nameless meaningless disposable enemies at the player. Surely we’ve all experienced the eye-rolling moment of “There’s more of them?!” one time or another. Whether they were copy and paste thugs, soldiers or aliens. This is a freakishly common practice in video games and I really don’t care for it.

First of all, it’s a cheap way of adding difficulty. Ideally, I’d want fewer enemies that are more dangerous.

Second of all, it breaks immersion and any sense of reality. From the ridiculous piles of bodies in Splinter Cell Conviction, to the bizarre realisation of just how many people you just killed – Nathan Drake has a higher body count than a number of historical wars.

Not to mention the consideration of just how many villains there was in the first place. The amount of PMC soldiers and general henchmen in Splinter Cell Conviction made the idea of this covert conspiracy a little hard to swallow. While Modern Warfare 2‘s “local militia” had me convinced I was single handedly waging war on the entire nation of Brazil.

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Photoshop skills level down

Use it sparingly.

Imagine you are stuck on a boss in an RPG. No strategies or walkthroughs will get you past this boss. Maybe you’ve attempted the fight several times. Every single try results in zero HP, a game over and some loading screens.

You have two options – you can give up and stop playing the game. But if you really want to get past that boss and enjoy the rest of the entertainment product you’ve spent your money on, or if you just want to see the story – you can run back to the area just before the save point and ‘grind’. Run in circles, repeating the same fights with the same monsters to make numbers slowly count up on a screen. You put in potentially hours of work in the hopes that you make your characters strong enough to beat this boss. Maybe you try again afterwards and find you’re still not strong enough. Back to the grind again.

Does anyone actually enjoy this?

I’d like to see a game where a person in this scenario could simply go into the profile of their characters and hit a nice shiny “Level up” button. It would be perfect for casual players, people just there for the story, or those of us who don’t enjoy slowly leveling up in the same place.

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